In the early 1960s, director Francine Parker had a chance to appear on the hit TV show "What's My Line?" The show's producers were sure she would stump the panel. "No one would ever guess that a woman would be a TV director," recalls Parker, who was the 11th woman in history to join the DGA.
"What's My Line?" was canceled before Parker got a chance to appear. But as a woman director, she continued to be a novelty for almost two more decades.
In 1980, statistics gathered by six women members of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) confirmed the rarity of Parker's position. At a press conference that year they announced that in the past 30 years, women had directed fewer than 1% of all major feature films and prime-time television. Specifically: Of 7,332 pictures, women directed 14; of 65,500 hours of television programming, women directed 115 hours.
Along with those bleak figures, the DGA Women's Committee also presented to entertainment industry power brokers a detailed affirmative-action proposal for getting more women "tracked into the main talent pool of working directors." The years since have seen lawsuits, networking, seminars, studies and conferences dedicated to increasing access for women into the prestigious guild.
And what has been the outcome? As the DGA celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, its women members are assessing their status. Starting today, Calendar begins a four-part look at their starts and stops, based on extensive interviews over the last several months with dozens of men and women who make decisions in Hollywood.
There is no scientific way to measure progress, and personal evaluations differ widely. The overall picture is positive: Today, women directors are no longer such a novelty. The DGA has 344 female director members (7.6%) out of a total director membership of 4,503.
There are definitely more women directors at work today than ever before--on major projects in film and television. Women directors are an emerging minority. At the same time, conversations on the subject throughout the industry tend toward a good news/bad news pattern. Some sample observations:
"Those women who are working, by and large, seem to be doing reasonably well," acknowledged Eileen Carhart, who along with Michealene Cristini and Thompson O'Sullivan co-chairs the DGA Women's Steering Committee. "But there are not enough women working."
--"I remember the (1980) meeting when those women revealed those embarrassing, shameful statistics," producer Norman Lear reflected. "But then everybody went back to work, and I never saw any evidence of improvement."
--"On balance, I'm satisfied that since our efforts commenced in 1978, progress has been made by women in gaining employment as directors," said Michael Franklin, executive director of the DGA. "I am disappointed that our litigation a few years ago on behalf of women and minorities was not successful, but it, too, played a part in moving forward our goals for equal employment opportunities for women."
--"The average person is no longer opposed to women directors," said DGA President Gilbert Cates. "Ten years ago, the majority of studio executives questioned the ability of a woman to direct a film. Today, you'd have to dig deep in the barrel to find a fool to say that. That attitude has been put to rest.
"But the numbers are still disappointing. There's no doubt that in relation to population, the number of women directing is very low. But I'm pleased to say that the awareness of the work of women directors is very high."
--'Women are now going on to direct second and third features," noted Eileen Carhart of the DGA Women's Steering Committee.
"That's different, even from the early 1980s. But it's misleading to extend that same kind of positive growth to all the women working or not working in this industry."
The last six years undeniably have seen a lot of consciousness-raising in the entertainment industry, and conversations on the subject of women's access tend to center around questions of socialization of attitudes as well as power structures.
Just wanting to direct isn't enough, insists Richard Donner ("Superman," "Ladyhawke," "Goonies"). "In the past, I'm sure women directors were kept down," he says while directing a helicopter scene in the upcoming "Lethal Weapon," a buddy-buddy cop picture starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.
"Twenty years ago it was brutal for all minorities. But over the last 10 years, if people wanted to direct, they did it. So many people sit back with the excuse, 'I'm not working because I'm black or I'm Italian or I'm a woman.' My feeling is there's been the desire but maybe not the energy put in by women."
"Directing has always been kind of a boy's club, like most things in America," Ned Tanen, president of the Paramount Motion Picture Group, believes. "I don't perceive this problem as being about this business. It's a subtext of American culture: 'You raise the kids, you take care of the house, dear. I'll go out and kill the bear.'